The Japanese culture is one of etiquette and tradition and even their instruments reflect this. A shamisen is a three stringed instrument which resembles a banjo or perhaps a guitar. It is played by plucking, using a fan shaped plectrum called a bachi. Despite consisting of only three strings, the sound of the shamisen is very distinct and can be manipulated in a variety of ways.
Traditionally, the shamisen is constructed of high value materials such as silk and ivory however there are cheaper and more durable versions, usually used by practising students. The shamisen is comprised of two main parts which can be disassembled for convenience; the body and the neck. The frame is usually carved out of mulberry or sandalwood. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and has three pegs at the end used to tighten the strings. The strings would be made using silk, or sometimes nylon, and would be pulled across the base of the shamisen. The body resembles a drum and is covered with taut hide. For professional players, this is usually cat skin and some of the most highly regarded shamisen still feature the cat’s nipples.
The shamisen is derived from a Chinese instrument called the sanchian in the 16th century. Since reaching Japan, the shamisen has become a characteristic feature of Kabuki; the Japanese theatre. It can be played solo or as part of an ensemble. Shamisens are also often associated with geisha as maikos take lessons in learning the shamisen shape their future as geisha. They often play the shamisen at teahouses to entertain the guests. Memoirs of a geisha (a film and novel) exemplify the importance of learning the shamisen and even show the lead character performing Kabuki where the shamisen is used as an accompaniment to a dance performance.
The shamisen has a very unique sound and could be likened to a whiney twang. The piercing notes linger by the amplification of the drum body and this gives the instrument a melancholic tone. When plucked slowly, the shamisen produces quite an eerie yet calming sound with a mysterious implication. However, when tempo and volume are increased, the shamisen can create a lively and upbeat atmosphere which emanates a slight urgency.
Traditional shamisen playing adhere to very strict rules about the construction and composition of shamisen music. However, Tsugaru-jamisen is a genre of shamisen music developed in northern Japan which has been growing in repertoire. The rules are much more relaxed with this genre and has allowed for variation in shamisen playing. For example, the strings of the instrument tend to be thicker, the components are made out of acrylic materials and even an electric tsugaru-jamisen has been developed. This style of playing has a more percussive quality, created by the plectrum striking the body after each stroke.
In 1999, the shamisen was revolutionised by The Yoshida Brothers who beautifully demonstrate the variation in energy which a shamisen can have. Playing tsugaru-jamisen, they incorporate elements of jazz and rock and use other instruments such as drums and synthesizers to enhance the shamisen. They became extremely popular, reaching American ears and their music was even used to advertise the Nintendo Wii.
The shamisen is an instrument which radiates delicacy and reform. With a single note, the mind inadvertently delves into the realm of Japanese culture. An instrument which is able to do this is a powerful one and this essence must be retained. Although modernists have updated the perception of shamisen playing, the unique sound still resonates, reminding listeners of the underlying history and culture. If anything, the updating of shamisen playing has reminded the modern world of this pure instrument and has allowed it to enter the market, therefore re-entering minds.